Nutrient Absorption and Stress
All the building blocks to create healthy hair, skin, and nails come from the nutrients you digest and absorb. In addition to diverting blood away from the digestive system, cortisol also decreases secretion of digestive enzymes and changes the pattern of movement of food through the digestive tract, impairing nutrient absorption. Plus, when you are under stress, your body burns through nutrients faster than normal. Over time, one consequence of impaired gastrointestinal function and increased demand for nutrients is a deficit that hits rapidly growing tissues like hair, skin and nails the hardest.
Skin and Stress
Excessive stress and cortisol have direct effects on the skin. Maybe you have experienced flushing or sweating when your friends have sung happy birthday to you in a crowded restaurant. These are superficial and immediately visible effects of the stress response, but there are deeper effects too. The skin normally has a fatty layer which protects and insulates it, retains moisture, and gives it a smooth softness. Excessive cortisol damages this layer and results in thin, fragile skin prone to easy bruising, stretch marks, and infection. Stress also induces cumulative skin damage over time because it accelerates production of free radicals (the biological equivalent of rust). When free radicals are generated faster than the cells’ antioxidant mechanisms can neutralize them, they damage the cells and their DNA, interfere with the protein that keeps the skin firm and prevents sagging, hasten the formation of wrinkles, and speed up the aging process. Not only does the skin react to the stress hormones generated by the adrenal glands that circulate throughout the body, but also to cortisol generated within specialized cells in the skin itself. Each of these cells, called a follicle, has its own equivalent of the HPA axis and the ability to demand and produce cortisol within the skin tissue itself. With over 5 million of these cells in the body, that is a lot of mini-cortisol factories impacting your skin! In addition, when cortisol levels are out of balance (too high or too low) it can disrupt the balance of sex hormones like testosterone and progesterone which also affect the skin.
Hair and Stress
Hair literally reflects stress. Because it is built from the nutrients available as it develops, and it grows approximately 1/4 – 1/2 inch per month, a few inches of hair can be used as a tool to indicate the levels of minerals or toxic substances that were present in the body over a period of time. Recently, researchers have found that elevated hair cortisol levels are a good predictor of heart attacks! This is because high levels of hair cortisol show that the person’s entire body has been highly stressed for months. Shiny, strong hair requires minerals, and deficiencies can show up as lackluster hair. Under stress, the demand for certain minerals such as magnesium and manganese increases but nutrient absorption and assimilation decreases. In someone with adrenal fatigue, absorption of these minerals and other essential nutrients is even more difficult, making the combination of high stress with adrenal fatigue particularly detrimental to hair health. A highly stressful event is even capable of precipitating a sudden, dramatic hair loss (telogen effluvium). It is commonly believed that extreme stress can cause gray hair, but until recently it was not known how this happens. Scientists are now discovering that free radicals generated at a higher rate during stress (the same ones that damage the skin) may well be the culprits, harming cells in the hair shaft that produce the hair’s pigment.